The word “utopia” refers to a perfect, or nearly perfect, place, or idea.
Utopia was created by Sir Thomas Moore in 1516. He used it as the title of his book, Utopia, that describes an island with all the qualities of a perfect society. The word “utopia” means comes from the Greek meaning “no place,” playing into the idea that truly utopian civilizations are impossible.
Definition and Explanation of Utopia
A utopian community or ideal is defined by its equality in economics, governmental policies, and the justice system. Utopias do not have any of the negative features of modern society, such as inequality, mass incarceration, poverty, or untimely death. In utopias, disease has been all but eliminated, discrimination is nonexistent, and men and women of all colors and cultures are treated equally.
Today, the word is commonly paired with its opposite, dystopia. In fact, much “utopian” literature is dystopian. This is since a utopia to one person is not likely a utopia to another. For example, the world of 1984 is perfect for those at the top, those who play by their own rules and control the men and women below them. But for people like Winston Smith, the world could not be more dystopian if it tried.
Why Do Writers Write About Utopias?
It is much more likely today that a writer will set out to combine the world of a utopia with the world of a dystopia and end up with a multilayered, unequal hierarchy of wealth and extreme poverty. Utopian worlds quickly fall apart, even with the best intentions. This allows for any number of complex plots to evolve. Men and women are often featured as resistance leaders, hoping against all hope to find some way to correct the imbalance and bring about a better world. The idea of a utopia is far more important in literature than an actual, physical, functional utopia. It gives the character something to hope and strive for.
Dystopia and Utopia
When one is first confronted with these two words, they appear to be opposites. But, the truth is more complicated than that. In reality, the latter, a utopia, is defined by its impossibility. It inherently leads to a dystopia marked by its lack of equality, disastrous living conditions, rampant injustice, and usually violence. Writers chose to write dystopias to convey something about contemporary society. This is true regarding all the best dystopian novels, including 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, A Clockwork Orange, and A Brave New World. The latter is one of the best examples of how a utopian ideal, or the quest to develop a utopia, devolves into something at its heart dystopian.
Examples of Utopias in Literature
Example #1 Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilmore
This lesser-known, 1915 novel depicts a utopia on an isolated island. It is run and populations entirely by women who reproduce asexually. Men have been eliminated from the equation, leading to peace and happiness for the women and children. But, as with almost all utopias, it’s not perfect for everyone. The novel details male visitors to the island who are shocked by what they witness. There is no place for them there.
Example #2 Utopia by Sir Thomas More
More’s Utopia is a classic example. In the novel, he explores the possibility, or lack thereof, that a utopia could actually exist. He focuses primarily on economic rights and equal justice under law. The book is a work of fiction as well as a satirical frame narrative. It depicts a fictional island and its customs. It was published in 1516 in Latin.
Example #3 Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Smith
Over the course of his travels, Gulliver comes upon a group of horses called the Houyhnhnms. The horse-society is as close to a utopia as it is possible to conceive of. The female and male horses are educated the same and exhibit virtues that any human being should be jealous of. There are no laws, and the creatures value friendship and temperance above all else.
As with novels, the best utopian film are at their heart dystopian. One of the best examples is Minority Report, which is based on the short story of the same name by Philip K. Dick. The plot follows the PreCrime division of the police department, a group tasked with arresting offenders before they commit crimes. The foreknowledge of the crimes-to-be comes from psychics, called pre-cogs are effectively kept in slavery in the police station. Their information is fed into a machine, and John Anderton, and his officers, are tasked with following it. Elysium is another contemporary example of a film that is in part utopia and part dystopia. It follows Matt Damon’s character as he fights to gain access to Elysium, a space habitat to which the richest of Earth’s have moved.
Perfect, ideal, idyllic, paradise, heaven, fantasy world, harmonious, illusory, bliss, and transcendental.
Related Literary Terms
- Antagonist— a character who is considered to be the rival of the protagonist.
- Anti-Hero—a character who is characterized by contrasting traits. This person has some of the traits of a hero and a villain.
- Audience—the group for which an artist or writer makes a piece of art or writes.
- Dystopia—the opposite of a utopia. It is an imagined place or community in which the majority of the people suffer.
- Mood—the feeling created by the writer for the reader. It is what happens within a reader because of the tone the writer used in the poem.
Other Resources on Utopia
- Watch: Is Utopia Always Dystopia? Is Utopia Possible?
- Watch: 10 Failed Utopias From History
- Read: Utopia by Sir Thomas More